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The Turning: God, Jews, and Torah in the 21st Century

by Rabbi David J. Cooper

These are some ideas that frame my thoughts as I start co-teaching with Rabbi Burt our course “Radical Judaism for Our Time.”

It’s all up for grabs – as the expression goes. The major frameworks of Jewish life for 2000 years are now subject to reevaluation. We are in the midst of a great turning that has been proceeding for two and half centuries and which has accelerated during the last 70 years and will continue into the future.

The role of the Torah, the idea of messianic redemption, the Jew in society, gender roles and the presence or absence of God in our lives – these have all radically changed for most Jews during the last generations. At least three phenomena have seriously challenged or overturned concepts considered central to Jewish belief for two millennia: the holocaust, modern science especially the theory of evolution, and scholarship analyzing the Torah. The changed role of Jews in society as citizens (rather than shtetl members) and the increasing enfranchisement of women into equal roles with men – these have challenged not only the details of Jewish Law (“Halakhah”) but the entire Halakhic *process.

The holocaust, through the most severe of tragedies, has put an end to the Deuteronomistic God who reliably rewards the good and punishes the bad. Meanwhile, scholarship on biblical texts has shown these to be an assembly of documents clearly of human authorship and not the literal word of God. And the well-proven concepts of evolution and of modern cosmology disprove biblical beliefs about the terracentric and anthropocentric placement of earth and humanity in the cosmos.

This is not the first time that there has been a major turning in the Jewish world needing to redefine or reevaluate itself and its beliefs. There have been several of these in the last 2500 years. One significant example is the century when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed and the next few generations thereafter. Two results of that confrontation with a new reality were Rabbinic Judaism and, yes, Christianity.

In the prior turnings, it was necessary for the religious leadership to deny that the changes that were happening to Judaism were a discontinuity with the past. The early rabbis, for example, explained that their discussions and their varied conclusions recorded in the Talmud had their origins in an oral Torah transmitted by God to Moses at Sinai. Thus the new was framed as the old. But in this turning, we may not be able to so easily convince ourselves of the antiquity of the novel concepts and practices arising in our Jewish lives in response to the world in which we now live.

But this is not to say that we have abandoned or should abandon all prior practices, concepts and mythos. We continue with our weekly and seasonal rituals such as Shabbat and holidays. But I believe that we should not deny that we have invested these with new meanings that diverge from our predecessors. For example, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were the times when my great grandfather confessed his sins to a God external to himself, hoping to obtain God’s mercy so that he could live yet another year with some prosperity and health. But I have no belief that I am beseeching a conscious deity who will determine whether I am worthy enough to persist in health and wealth. And yet I pray. But my prayer is about honest discernment of my misdeeds and the direction of my life, and whether I am walking an ethical path that enhances the community and world about me. I use almost the same words as my great grandfather, but I cannot deny that I mean something very different. But the words he used are a useful technology that connects me with my present while partaking of — but not duplicating — the past.

In the class I am teaching with Rabbi Burt [you can still join and benefit], we are looking to the teachings of Rabbi Art Green, who both in his personal practice and in his public theology, walks the razor edge where past and present join. He completely embraces the results of scholarship and science while he uses the spiritual technology of the past to frame a post-modern, neo-Hassidic, and anti-fundamentalist way of living Jewishly.

Take for example his approach to the idea of cosmic and human origins. Kabbalah, of which he is a committed student, is deeply concerned with the creation of time, space and humanity. But for over a hundred years, Jews steeped in modernity have tended to shy away from Creation as a spiritual concept largely because of a perception that religion and science were in conflict about this. (And in fundamentalism that is indeed true.) But Green says that a Kabbalah of our time must return to Creation, but with the Big Bang and evolution as spiritually rich concepts that emphasize both the unity of the cosmos, and the unity of all life. And embracing this spirituality imposes upon us a responsibility, or mitzvah, to cherish all human and animal life, to seek and pursue peace with justice and to preserve the ecological balance of our biosphere.

This is the generation where we need to embrace the turning in which we find ourselves. It is not simply an act of individual theological discernment. It is a pursuit that requires a community of seekers to search and also to practice together. Kehilla has been such a place for 31 years and we will be here for a long time into the future as we continue within this turning.


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